Friday, 3 March 2017

Film Friday: "Too Many Girls" (1940)

In honor of Desi Arnaz's 100th birthday, which was yesterday (March 2), this week on «Film Friday» I bring you the film that marked his screen debut. It was also the picture that introduced him to (arguably) the greatest love of his life, Lucille Ball.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Abbott, Too Many Girls (1940) tells the story of Connie Casey (Lucille Ball), a high-spirited, headline-chasing heiress who keeps her manufacturing-tycoon father (Harry Shannon) busy worrying about her. Deported from Europe for her antics, Connie enrolls in her father's alma mater, Pottawatomie College, in New Mexico, in order to be near her latest sweetheart, British playwright Beverly Waverly (Douglas Walton). In desperation, Mr. Casey secretly hires four Ivy League football players — Clint Kelly (Richard Carlson), Jojo Jordan (Eddie Bracken), Manuelito Lynch (Desi Arnaz) and Al Terwilliger (Hal LeRoy) — to act as her bodyguards.

After signing an «hands-off» clause in their contracts, the boys arrive at Pottawatomie to find the college closed due to financial trouble. They promptly donated their salaries to help the school and also join its disillusioned football team. Soon, the Pottawatomie team begins to wins every game and headlines of their success spread across the country. Meanwhile, Clint starts to fall in love with Connie and decides that he must resign his contract with Mr. Casey. The other boys also find love: Jojo with Tallulah Lou (Libby Bennett), Al with Eileen Eilers (Frances Langford) and Manuelito with Pepe (Ann Miller). When Connie discovers the terms of Clint's business arrangement with her father, she angrily insists that her bodyguards leave town before the big game. Learning of their players' plans, the townfolk pursue the boys, who are eventually caught by Beverly and returned to the school just in time for the game. Encouraged by Connie's declaration of love, Clint leads the team to victory and wins the girl's heart.

Manuelito Lynch: I'm not conceited. I am the greatest player in fifty years, but I'm not conceited.

In early December 1938, director and producer George Abbott approached Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart with the idea of doing a «rah-rah» college-football musical called Too Many Girls. The script had been penned by George Marion Jr., a co-writer on the successful musical Love Me Tonight (1932), which featured songs by Rodgers and Hart. Being a screenwriter, Marion had originally conceived the story for the movies, but Abbott thought it was easily adjustable to the requirements of the stage. Rodgers and Hart, whose prolific songwriting partnership had started in 1919, were immediately drawn to the project, as «it gave us the chance to work again with talented young people who were not yet anointed as 'stars.'» As such, they hired Marcy Westcott to play the leading role of Connie Casey, Mary Jane Walsh as her friend Eileen Eilers and Diosa Costello as the Mexican-American cheerleader Pepe. The parts of the four All-American football players who secretly act as Connie's bodyguards were assigned to Richard Kollmar, Eddie Bracken, Hal LeRoy and a young Cuban named Desi Arnaz.

Those who thought him a slum kid from the streets of Havana were surprised to learn that Arnaz had actually been a child of privilege. His wealthy father was not only the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, but also owned three large ranches, a palatial home and a vacation mansion on a private island. In addition, his maternal grandfather was a co-founder of the Bacardi Rum company. The family's prosperity came to a sudden end in the summer of 1933, when Fulgencio Batista led the Cuban Army in a revolt against the corrupt regime of President Gerardo Machado. As a result, Arnaz's father, who was close to the president, was sent to jail and all of his property was confiscated. Arnaz and his mother, uncle and cousin managed to escape the newly empowered Batista police force and board a ferry headed for Key West, Florida. Upon moving to the United States, the 16-year-old Arnaz turned to show business to support himself. He joined a Cuban combo, then formed his own band and became popular as a singing bongo player. In early 1939, Hart saw Arnaz perform at the La Conga nightclub in New York and thought he would be perfect for the role of Manuelito Lynch in Too Many Girls.

Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller in a
publicity still for Too Many Girls
Produced and directed by Abbott, Too Many Girls tried out in Boston and opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York on October 18, 1939. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called the two-act musical «humorous, fresh, and exhilarating,» complimenting coreographer Robert Alton on the vivacious dances he had created for the show and saying that there were «some likely young fry in the chief places.» Also popular at the box-office, Too Many Girls closed at the Broadway Theatre on May 18, 1940, after 249 performances.

 After the show closed on Broadway, RKO purchased the rights to Too Many Girls and hired Abbott to direct the film adaptation, which was written by John Twist. Abbott brought in the majority of the original cast, including Arnaz, Bracken, LeRoy, Bennett and an unknown Van Johnson, to reprise their stage roles in the picture. As a chorus boy, Johnson made such an impression upon studio executives that he was offered a contract as a result of his performance. Other additions included newcomer Ann Miller, already renowned for her tap-dancing skills; popular radio star Frances Langford; and Richard Carlson, who had made his film debut in The Young in Heart (1938).

Rounding out the cast of Too Many Girls was 29-year-old Lucille Ball, replacing Marcy Westcott as the heiress who attends Pottawatomie College shadowed by four bodyguards. Beginning her career as a model for fashion entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie, Ball entered the motion industry as a glamorous Goldwyn Girl in Roman Scandals (1933), a musical starring Eddie Cantor and Gloria Stuart. Put under contract by Columbia, the then-blonde, statuesque actress continued to appear in small parts, before her option was dropped. RKO then hired Ball at the urging of producer Pandro S. Berman, who featured her in supporting roles in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers productions Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). It was only when she was cast opposite Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in Gregory La Cava's Academy Award-nominated picture Stage Door (1937) that Ball finally began to gain popularity and favorable reviews with her work.

Hal LeRoy, Lucille Ball, Richard Carlson, Eddie Bracken
and Desi Arnaz in Too Many Girls
Ball met Arnaz for the first time at the studio commissary, while Too Many Girls was in rehearsals. She was in full costume and make-up after performing a fight scene for another film, Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940): she wore a slinky gold lamé dress slit halfway up the thigh and had a bogus black eye. Arnaz was seated at the same table as Abbott, who introduced the two co-stars. Outfitted in the typical striped jersey and scuffed tights of a college football player, Arnaz was not at all impressed by Ball's appearance, thinking she «looked like a two-dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp.» After the encounter, he promptly advised Abbott to fire Ball from the picture, arguing that she was «too tough and common for the role,» but the director ignored his input.

That night, Arnaz was rehearsing the Rodgers and Hart song «She Could Shake the Maracas» when Ball walked in, now wearing a yellow sweater and pair of tight-fitting beige slacks. Not recognizing her, Arnaz turned to the piano player who was accompanying him and whispered in a heavy Cuban accent, «Man, that is a honk of woman!» The pianist reminded Arnaz of his earlier meeting with Ball, as she approached them to say hello. «Miss Ball?» Arnaz inquired, just to make sure that there was no mistake. «Why don't you call me Lucille?» she offered. «And I'll call you Dizzy.»

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's first encounter in Too Many Girls

Miller was a witness in Arnaz and Ball's second meeting and remebered that «When Desi first was introduced to Lucille, his eyes just lit up.» Seven hours after the studio lunch, the couple went dancing at a Mexican restaurant in Sunset Boulevard, where Ball was mesmerized listening to Arnaz relate the story of his life. Two days later, Arnaz terminated his engagement to a dancer named Renée DeMarco and Ball broke up with Alexander Hall, the film director she had been dating steadily for the past five years. «A Cuban skyrocket,» Ball later wrote, had «burst over my horizon.» In Arnaz's words, «those damned big beautiful blue eyes» had suddenly trivialized everything and everyone else.

Filmed over the summer, Too Many Girls premiered on October 8, 1940 at Loew's Criterion Theatre in New York. Critical reviews were generally positive, although the notoriously acidic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as «a simple, conventional rah-rah picture, without any place for pretense.» In addition, he was not impressed with Arnaz, calling him «a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face, unfortunately, lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace.» Variety, however, thought the young Cuban actor had «an intriguing film personality that might carry him far.» While the film was only a mild financial success, audiences were apparently smitten with Arnaz, writing on comment cards that they liked «the Mexican boy,» «the Spanish actor,» «the little Argentine fellow» and «the Cuban boy,» whom they considered «darn good« and «excellent.»

Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom by Mary C. Beltrán (University of Illinois Press, 2009) 
Musical Stages: An Autobiography by Richard Rodgers (Da Capo Press, 2002) 
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
TCM's article on Too Many Girls Eleanor Quin 
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther

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